This huge temple is encircled within a fort called the Sivaganga Little Fort built by the Nayak rulers around the 16th century.
The Brihadishvara temple was erected by Rajaraja I, the great Chola monarch, who ruled from 985 to 1014 A.D. There are two entrances of the temple through two heavily- sculpted gopurams. At the centre of the huge open quadrangle, the main shrine is located.
The vimana or tower of the sanctum consists of thirteen tiers and it can be seen even from several miles around. There is a popular myth that this tower does not cast a shadow. The capstone, which surmounts this tower, consists of three sections or parts. All these together weigh over eighty tons. According to a popular belief, this stone was at first lying in the house of a cowherdess who used to supply buttermilk to the masons building the temple. She was willing to contribute this stone to the temple. It is said that Both Rajaraja and the cowherdess had a dream in which God expressed his acceptance of the gift.
There is an earthen slope stretching from a place called Sarapallam, which is 6 km from the Brihadishvara temple to the top of the vimana. This was laid according to tradition for pulling up the capstone. But this view is not accepted by the modern scientists. They argue that the tower if adjoined by such a slope on one of its sides alone would have crumpled. Such ramps on all four sides are not realistic and are not discussed in the legends. Therefore, the scientists say that the rising construction would have been surrounded or buried gradually by a twisting slope clasping it. As the peak of the construction was thus reached, the tower was exposed by slowly eliminating the earth from the top downward i.e. by decreasing the slope step by step. The Egyptian pyramids were also constructed following the same pattern.
One can see the fine-looking murals of gods and princes on the walls of the dark circumambulatory passage around the Brihadishvara temple. These beautiful paintings were made by the Chola artists. But these paintings were covered by the Nayaka paintings during Nayaka period and these remained hidden for several centuries. Later, these Chola murals were rediscovered accidentally in a very interesting manner. The story goes like this, once a university professor, while on a study tour to the temple, distractedly scratched one of the Nayaka murals. These came down in a shower of fragments instantaneously, thus exposing the Chola paintings lying below. Thereafter, archaeologists are trying to remove the Nayaka murals from the walls, without harming the underlying Chola paintings.
The Nayaka murals of the Brihadishvara temple, which were detached, were later properly mounted for display in museums. Nowhere in Asia, was this complicated task attempted after that, which involved lot of time, labour, money and scientific expertise. There are series of sculptures in Bharatanatyam poses available above the painted passage of the temple. It is said that the sacred Nandi or the sacred stone bull lying in front of the sanctum was rapidly increasing in size. Hence an iron nail was inserted at its back so that it does not become so big as to hit the ceiling. But now, no nail can be seen on the body of Nandi. As per one more story, the Nandi bull increased to its recent size as there was a toad within it and ultimately the creature was discovered and replaced to a sacred pond within the temple complex. Besides the main shrine, there are several smaller sub-shrines scattered in the temple. These shrines include those dedicated to Goddess Brihannayaki and God Subrahmanya.
There is a fascinating small story regarding the erection of the Subrahmanya shrine in the Brihadishvara temple. It is said that once the chief mason was absorbed in work. So, he accepted vaguely the betel leaves offered by the king who had come to inspect the mason at work. It was an act of disrespect as per the tradition of that time. It was a sin to accept betel leaves from one's superior. So, to do penance of his sin, the mason completed the shrine without taking any money for his labour. One can see various forms of sculptures of Siva including Nataraja (the dancing Siva) and Ardhanarisvara (Siva as half-man and half-woman) on the outer walls of the temple. The Brihadishvara temple has been declared as a world heritage site by the UNESCO.